A Canadian First Nation reclaims the telling of its own story

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Dave Corbiere, an Indigenous fisherman on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, has made a children's story out of his life with Canoe Kids, a publishing company that is aiming to bring authentic Indigenous voices to the pages of kids' magazines and books.

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On a sunny August afternoon, Dave Corbiere sets out from the dock at the Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation in Manitoulin Island, Ontario, to catch whitefish and pickerel in Lake Huron as his forebears have done for generations.

But one could experience his life as a fisherman by flipping through his children’s book, “Whispers on the Water,” or reading about him in the pages of a magazine called Canoe Kids. It’s part of a mission to inform people who aren’t exposed to Indigenous culture beyond media portrayals, by Indigenous people themselves.

Why We Wrote This

Minority communities often have not been able to present themselves and their stories to the greater society. In Canada, one First Nations group is trying to reclaim their voice through children’s publishing.

“We were very frustrated by the lack of authentic material to point teachers and parents to about Indigenous cultures and about the issues facing Indigenous people in Canada today,” says Kelly Brownbill, senior editor and cultural advisor to both the magazine and book publishing efforts.

“We want parents to be able to read a story at night that isn’t a Hollywood version of my culture. … Ninety percent of the world’s problems are caused by ignorance. But a really cool thing about ignorance is that it’s 100% curable if people will just take the time and energy.”

Dave Corbiere powers his fishing boat to the rocks on the shore of a small island in the North Channel of Lake Huron. It’s upon this foundation that he lays a fish below an eagle’s nest, perched tenuously in the branches of a white pine, before he sets out. It’s an offering of thanks to the bird of prey that is considered sacred by the Ojibwe people – for keeping him safe on the lake and for leading a life worthy of example.

Then he assesses the water temperatures and currents in search of schools of whitefish and pickerel. He and his granddaughter Gabriella set out their nets in the evenings and hoist up the catch by hand the following morning – never taking more fish than they will use. They spend the early part of the day cleaning and packing it for sale. What they don’t sell they will share with elders in their community.

On a sunny August afternoon, my family joins Mr. Corbiere’s trip from the dock at the Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation on Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world.

Karen Norris/Staff

Why We Wrote This

Minority communities often have not been able to present themselves and their stories to the greater society. In Canada, one First Nations group is trying to reclaim their voice through children’s publishing.

But one could experience his life as a fisherman by flipping through his children’s book, “Whispers on the Water,” or reading about him in the pages of a magazine called Canoe Kids. It’s part of a mission to inform people like myself, who aren’t exposed to Indigenous culture beyond media portrayals, by Indigenous people themselves.

“The rest of Canada doesn’t understand our culture. A lot of people think we are living in teepees,” says Mr. Corbiere. “This helps them understand us better, and understand the prejudice that is there. If kids get an education young enough, they’ll get beyond the prejudice.”

I hesitate at first but then confide that, as I told my elementary-school daughter we were entering a reserve, she used the exact wording he cited: “Oh cool, are there going to be teepees?” This despite the fact that she goes to public school in Canada, where the day begins with an acknowledgement of the traditional lands upon which each school sits – an indication of the place Indigenous culture and history are meant to hold in Canadian education. He nods at her kindly.

“Ignorance is 100% curable”

The first edition of Canoe Kids came out in 2016, before being renamed to 4Canoes in 2019. The publication was a direct response to the Calls to Action put out in 2015 by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established to face the atrocities endured by Indigenous children in residential schools over decades. And with debates over who has the right to tell whose story intensifying, the publishing group, which is almost entirely Indigenous, felt it was paramount that the voices featured on the pages came from Indigenous people.

“We were very frustrated by the lack of authentic material to point teachers and parents to about Indigenous cultures and about the issues facing Indigenous people in Canada today,” says Kelly Brownbill, senior editor and cultural advisor to both the magazine and book publishing efforts. “We want parents to be able to read a story at night that isn’t a Hollywood version of my culture. … Ninety percent of the world’s problems are caused by ignorance. But a really cool thing about ignorance is that it’s 100% curable if people will just take the time and energy.”

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Dave Corbiere and his granddaughter Gabriella fish the waters of Lake Huron's North Channel in much the same way as their forebears did, including leaving a fish out for the eagle, a bird considered sacred by the Ojibwe people, before setting out.

Their first edition focused on Manitoulin Island, which means “spirit island” in Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language, and has long been a center of Indigenous culture – and tourism, pre-pandemic, in Canada. It introduces readers to ancient stories, to the importance of birch-bark canoes, and pau waus (powwows). It includes glossy photos and a glossary of key words in Anishinaabemowin.

Kevin Milne, a photojournalist and driver of the project, says part of the idea was to start at Canada’s center, then radiate to Indigenous cultures west and east, then south to the U.S. and throughout Latin America and beyond. The magazine and books have reached over 1 million viewers and today sit in libraries and schools across Canada.

One of the project’s four pillars is environmental rights (along with human rights, cultural rights, and equity), and that ethos is reflected in stories about the way women and men like Mr. Corbiere live a life of conservation, without necessarily even using the word, says Mr. Milne.

“Those stories are very important, they allow people who have never met an Indigenous person to connect in a way they might not be able to,” he says. “It’s a way to draw those people in, and to have a different consideration of a land-based culture.”

Another view of the world

In his book, Mr. Corbiere writes of the teachings of “the whispers of the water,” traditions passed down from his ancestors and that he is now passing down to his granddaughter. Next to illustrated photos of the pristine waters and land of Manitoulin Island, the text reads: “He teaches her where the shoals and reefs are, and where the edges drop off to great depths.”

On this afternoon, he drives us to the camp where that granddaughter, Gabriella, lives in the summer, next to her grandparents, on a rocky outcrop called the Five Islands. As we chat, a butterfly flits around their screened porch.

“It’s important to give people another world view, that there are different ways of living,” says Ms. Corbiere, who is 19. Plus, she admits it’s pretty cool to see the pictures she lives everyday as an illustrated book.

Someone else thinks it’s pretty cool too, as my daughter and I flip through the pages after we get back to our hotel for the day – and this time because she’s had a real experience, not a Hollywood interpretation.

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